Noted: William Zinsser

from “Visions and Revisions: Writing On Writing Well and keeping it up-to-date for 35 years,” in The American Scholar, Spring 2009

“It now occurs to me that I didn’t really find my style until I wrote On Writing Well, at the late age of 52. Until then my style more probably reflected zinsserwho I wanted to be perceived as—the urbane columnist and humorist and critic. Only when I started writing as a teacher and had no agenda except to be helpful did my style become integrated with my personality and my character. . . . The personal voice of the teacher, not the literary voice of the essayist, was the one I wanted narrating my book.”

“I learned to delete every word or phrase or sentence that told readers something they had already been enabled to know or were bright enough to deduce. I also tried to stop using phrases like of course and adverbs like surprisingly, predictably, understandably, and ironically, which place a value on a sentence before the reader has a chance to read it. Readers, I learned, are not as dumb as the writer thinks; they must be given room to play their role in the act of writing—to discover for themselves what’s surprising or predictable or understandable or ironic. They don’t want that pleasure usurped. . . . I learned to gather hundreds of facts and to let those facts speak for themselves, unvarnished. I learned to generate emotion by getting other people to tell me things they felt strongly about, not by waxing emotional myself. I learned not to wax.”

“To focus my students on the process, rather than on the finished product, I invented a writing course that doesn’t require any writing. I only ask the women and men in my class to talk about their hopes and intentions and about the possible ways of getting where they want to go. That forces them to confront all the prior decisions that memoir insists on: matters of voice, tone, tense, attitude, scope, narrative, and the privacy of their family and friends. How do they plan to reduce the vast jumble of memories clamoring to be sorted out and described? . . . I had discovered that the crippling problem for many writers is not how to write, but how to organize what they have written. Yet that skill is almost never mentioned or taught in writing classes.”

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2 Comments

Filed under craft, technique, editing, essay-narrative, memoir, NOTED, revision, structure, teaching, education

2 responses to “Noted: William Zinsser

  1. John

    Extremely useful tidbit.

  2. What a great excerpt. Reading “On Writing Well” over 20 years ago was transformative for me. It made the act of writing accessible, practical, learnable, and teachable. Clearly William Zinsser has lost none of his mojo.